When most people think of church and money, they often see offering plates and giving campaigns. But when Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams, Jr. talks about the church and money, he starts with a vision.
“If God gives you a vision, it always exceeds your resources,” Williams said. “If it’s a vision that you came up with, you can probably fund it. But if it’s a God-sized vision, there’s no way you’re going to fund it unless God provides.”
Williams isn’t a fundraiser. But he will convince you that the money your church raises week after week isn’t enough. Then, he’ll show you a different path forward.
Williams has spent most of his life thinking about faith and money. Raised by a single mother in Philadelphia, he remembers being in church seven days a week. The minister of the small Pentecostal church that he and his mother attended would often preach that God would “open up the windows of heaven and pour down blessings upon them,” as reward for their financial contributions. It was a statement that confused Williams, who often watched his mother give money to the church despite barely earning enough to pay rent and purchase food.
“As a kid, I was trying to figure out a couple things,” Williams said. “One, does God literally leave heaven and come and get our money? And then, since we live in a small apartment, I was trying to figure out like, how does the money come into our apartment from heaven?”
They were questions that continued to bother him. When he went years without an answer, he decided to learn everything he could about money so he could be in a position to support his family.
“And so, I chose finance,” Williams said. “And my professor said, if you really want to make a lot of money, you need to go to Wall Street.”
So, Williams did. He joined Goldman Sachs as a corporate bond trader in 1990. By 1994, Williams had earned an MBA in Finance-Entrepreneurship from the Wharton School and worked for some of the biggest players on Wall Street. But despite his success, Williams said something felt off.
“No one really could understand why I felt so empty,” Williams said. “Because by all measures, I was really doing well.”
He knew he was spiritually bankrupt when he showed up at Bridge Street AME church in Brooklyn. Some friends from Wall Street had invited him. And despite his initial protests, Williams went to the church on that cold Sunday in January 1997. The pastor at the time, Rev. Fred Lucas, had based the sermon off passages from W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and the Gospel of John.
“The sermon side of it was, you know not what you ask for,” Williams said. “Sometimes we pursue money, but that’s really not what we want.”
Williams doesn’t remember how it happened, all he knows is that by the end of the sermon, he was at the altar crying.
“I said, God, if you send me a wife, I promise you, I will serve you. I’ll be a pastor. I’ll do whatever you say,” Williams said.
One year later, Williams met his wife. By that point, he’d nearly forgotten the promise he made to God about becoming a pastor. So, when she revealed to Williams that God told her that Williams was to be her husband and a pastor, Williams said the pastor part wasn’t going to happen. The money was much better on Wall Street.
They started a family together. Williams continued his career in finance. But he felt increasingly discouraged by church and the questions that he sought answers to as a child, resurfaced.
“The pastor would say, if you give God your money, He’s going to give it back to you tenfold,” Williams said. “I’m like, that’s nonsense, that’s not how it works. If you’re the best in the market, maybe you get tenfold, but you’re talking nonsense.”
Williams said he knew he had two options: go to seminary or become an atheist. He chose seminary.
At Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., Williams connected with the Faith & Money Network and began to grapple with the questions he had long asked. But a year into seminary, the president of the school came to him with a question: Would he be willing to teach pastors about faith and money?
“I’m like, no. I came here to learn about faith and money. You’re asking me to teach,” Williams said. “He goes, no one else here went to Wharton business school. No one else here was a venture capitalist. No one else here is an investment banker.”
A year into seminary, still laden with questions, Williams started teaching pastors about money. Nearly 20 years later, he still is. Only this time, he’s a pastor himself.
“Ninety-nine percent of churches have one thing in common: they ask their members for money and they do it every week,” Williams said. “But why is it some churches seem to excel more than others? Because we’re all using the same Bible more or less, we’re all more or less preaching the same message, meeting for the same amount of time, plus or minus 35 minutes. What’s the difference?”
On Wall Street, Williams said they call this “comparable analysis.” They look at competitive companies in the same sector. Then they try to figure out why one company’s stock is trading so much higher than the others.
In the church sector, few trade higher than Joel Osteen. According to the Houston Chronicle, Osteen’s nondenominational church in Houston spent around $90 million during the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2017. Williams wanted to know why. It’s certainly not Osteen’s preaching that’s getting people fired up, he said.
“I knew some people who knew Joel Osteen’s ministry,” Williams said. “They said, here’s what you don’t see: When you attend Joel’s church, he’s got an army of folk who assess your spiritual gifts and talents and they find a way to put you to work on day one.”
Many churches don’t do that, Williams said. At most congregations, it can take four to five visits before a person is acknowledged. Even once they’re welcomed, church leaders rarely ask about their gifts and talents.
Williams calls this missed opportunity, missed “intellectual capital.” It’s the “I” in the F.I.S.H Principle that Williams created. The “I” builds on the “F” – “faith capital” – which consists of the tithes and offerings of the faithful members. The “F” is often where most churches make the mistake of stopping.
“The breakout churches figure out how to unleash intellectual capital in the life of that church,” Williams said. “When somebody shows up that doesn’t look like who we were looking for, they still find a way to use your gifts and talents.”
The “S” stands for social capital, which are the resources available from the community, including individual donors, corporate donors, and government grants. Then finally there’s the “H.” It stands for human capital and captures the projects and programs that have an impact on people’s lives such as homeless shelters, food pantries, and recovery programs.
“If you can be convinced that God has a vision bigger than your resources, it’s going to require the intellect and the creativity of other people. It’s going to require you to reach beyond the people who are members of your church. And it’s going to require you to be able to have a demonstrable impact in the lives of people,” Williams said. “If I can convince you that that’s how God works, then I can help you ‘F.I.S.H’ differently.”
Money isn’t the problem
Williams knows it’s possible to fish differently because he’s done it in his own congregation in Morristown, N.J.
When Williams was appointed to the church more than 10 years ago, he went to lunch with the officers of the church. They told him they were happy to have him on board as their new pastor. There was just one problem, they couldn’t pay him.
“Here’s the deal,” Williams told them. “If money is our only problem, we’re going to be just fine. But I suspect there’s another problem other than money.”
Williams took the job. Within the first eight months of his assignment, the church flooded. A call to the insurance company revealed a lapsed policy. With four feet of water sitting in the church and no flood insurance, Williams turned to the congregation.
“Pastor, we’ve got no money,” the church members said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Williams prayed and returned to the congregation with an idea: a soup kitchen.
“Members said, pastor, we appreciate your time before the Lord, but we’re not doing a soup kitchen,” Williams said. “And I said, okay, so here’s the deal. I’m going to proceed with my vision and if the Lord is in it, the Lord will provide. What’s your plan? They said, well, we’re going to ask the members to give. I said, OK, done, you go before the members, you ask the members to fund the repairs of the church. I’m going to go into the community and share this vision of feeding the hungry and let’s see how God answers.”
Williams went to the community. His outreach garnered over $1 million to restore the church and start the soup kitchen. The church campaign churned up around $30,000.
Years later, Williams said the soup kitchen has been the most transformative ministry in the life of the church in the 178 years the church has been in the community.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, they were given a school bus, which Williams turned into a mobile food pantry. Every week, they filled it up and delivered food to people in the community. Pretty soon, they were the leading provider of food in the county. When summer came, a local bank purchased a refrigerated van for the ministry so they could safely continue their work of delivering meat and produce.
“What I realized is the other organizations during the pandemic retreated, they did less, [they] cut back,” Williams said. “We, during the pandemic, advanced, we expanded.”
Not seen, yet hoped for
Growing the church’s food ministry not only changed the church and the community, but it also changed Williams.
When Williams first arrived at the church years ago, he felt frustrated. The members didn’t understand his vision. They couldn’t see what God was trying to do in the church.
“I went to one of my seminary professors and I just said, listen, these guys are ridiculous. And he goes, hold on there Pastor Williams … you don’t think they know that their situation is desperate? […] The fact is, these people are resilient because they have been faithful, even though they were not seeing the results … you come along and you’ve seen what you perceive to be inadequacy and failure, is it possible that if they had not held on and done the best that they could, there wouldn’t have even been a church for you to come to?”
The professor’s words stuck with Williams. When he sat down to write Fishing Differently years later, he included a piece in the book on what that professor shared with him about celebrating the faithful, “because faith is the substance of things not seen yet hoped for.”
“I had to learn to appreciate faithfulness and not only appreciate it but celebrate it because I’m coming into this with this Wall Street mentality, [saying] ‘look we’ve got to have metrics. we’ve got to have performance standards, [we’ve] got to get it done,’” Williams said. “But what I also missed, was that even when there are no visible achievements, the very fact that they were still here should be celebrated.”
Williams knows there are real roadblocks to getting churches to reimagine ministry. Some have a tight grip on tithes and offerings, while others face a hierarchical structure that doesn’t allow vision to flow freely. But Williams has also witnessed what’s possible when a church is willing to look beyond resources and follow God’s vision — if only they’re willing to F.I.S.H differently.
Christina Colón | February 23, 2021
Christina Colón is a writer, editor and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in Sojourners and Global Press Journal.